Saturday, 21 July 2018

Hex: The Ultimate Western/Witchcraft/Biker Conjuring

Hex (1973) Dir: Leo Garen 

Nebraska, 1919. Two young mixed-race sisters: sullen, stoic, raven haired Oriole (Cristina Raines) and eternally cheerful, naive blonde Acacia (Hilarie Thompson) tend to the day’s chores at their remote prairie farm. The closest town is Bingo, where a gang of six motorcyclists stop by on their way to California. Initial goodwill from the townspeople soon transforms into hostility when the rowdy group causes too much of a ruckus. The gang seek refuge at Oriole and Acacia’s farm. Oriole is suspicious and wants the bikers to leave, but sweet natured Acacia persuades her sister to let them stay. Acacia tends to the group’s wounds, cooks them dinner and shares her stash of ‘Loco-weed’ (marijuana) around while stony-faced Oriole regards the newcomers coldly. Whizzer, their leader (Keith Carradine) explains to the women that they are World War 1 veterans travelling to California where they intend either to become aviation experts or to “star in the movies”. In turn, Acacia reveals that she and Oriole were recently orphaned – their father was a Native American shaman and mother a Swedish immigrant. The girls were taught by their father how to run the farm as well as magical incantations. Later, Giblets (Gary Busey) and Jimbang (Scott Glenn) ridicule the sisters amongst themselves. “They ain’t been to school… they ain’t even American”, scoffs the former. Giblets attempts to rape Acacia but is rescued by Oriole, who covertly casts a spell to snuff out her sister’s attacker in revenge. He is pecked to death by an owl. The strange happenings continue as Oriole continues to work her magic to eliminate her foes. Oriole falls for Whizzer and is jealous of his bitchy girlfriend China (Doria Cook-Nelson). After a catfight, China is reduced to a catatonic nervous wreck and later dies because of Oriole’s hex, which causes her to have hallucinations of being attacked by snakes, mice and enchanted trees. Jimbang’s gun misfires, causing him to shoot himself in the face when he suspects that Oriole is responsible for the misfortunes. Oriole conjures up the demise of her final unwanted guest, the sinister mute Chupo (Robert Walker Jr.), after he shows her evidence he’s found that reveals he knows exactly what is going on. Oriole seductively purrs to Whizzer “I believe you’re ready for me now”, but he’s repulsed and unnerved by the supernatural killings instigated by his new lover. Acacia herself has found companionship in the form of kind hearted Golly (Mike Combs), the youngest member of the gang. Whizzer initially wants to leave the farm, as he fears Oriole’s powers, but changes his mind when Golly decides to stay and start a new life with Acacia. Oriole informs the bemused and befuddled Whizzer that she’s coming along to California with him. As they head off into the plains together, the pair look up and see modern era fighter jet planes flying above them...         

Hex is a wonderfully unique and compelling horror/Western/biker combo that epitomises the freewheeling experimental sensibility of the early 1970's; this in turn gives the movie a certain peculiar appeal.  The intertwining of various genres and themes, as well as the unconventional use of fades, dissolves and freeze frames and eclectic music score actually works in the film’s favour, creating an off-kilter and truly one of a kind atmosphere. Classic Western tropes are utilised; the Old West location with its harsh landscape, the fictional frontier town of Bingo, the Native American heritage of Oriole and Acacia, and the bikers travelling California to find their fortunes there (a nod to the traditional Western in which the journey west is seen as a road to liberation and improvement). Another common Western theme is the violation of honour codes and subsequent retribution taking place. Oriole wreaks revenge on those who have wronged her, but via witchcraft rather than gun battles. Her honour code revolves around her family – anyone who hurts or insults her blood kin, or herself, must die. The utilisation of witchcraft in the story represents the supernatural, or fantasy, aspect, as does the ambiguous conclusion of the film, when Oriole and Whizzer see fighter jets in the sky. There are a number of possible explanations for this ending. It could be a hallucinational or magic-provoked glimpse into the future. Or from a non-fantasy based interpretation, perhaps it is a symbol of Oriole’s personal growth in that she wants to leave the isolated world of the farm and experience more of life.         

Within this Fantasy Western tinged setting, the film also addresses the cultural and spiritual collision between the insular, unworldly daughters of a recently deceased Native American medicine man and Swedish immigrant mother, and a troupe of lawless, nomadic bikers.  “They ain’t been to school… they ain’t even American,” is the popular perception of half-breeds Oriole and Acacia, and indeed this is what Giblets snickers to one of his cohorts. (Harland Smith 2010). This ignorance and fear of the ‘other’ breeds hostility on both sides, resulting in disastrous consequences (the subsequent deaths). The only two surviving bikers are those who are more open-minded and accepting towards the two women (Whizzer and Golly).
The presentation of the two central female characters is rather simplistic and clich├ęd. Oriole, with her jet black hair and olive skin, represents ‘darkness’. Her personality is serious, dominating and as tough as nails. Her occult dabblings also are further evidence of her ‘dark side’. Acacia is porcelain doll-fair and flaxen haired, of course symbolising ‘lightness’. She is pure, innocent, submissive and only ever sees the good in people. Everything about the sisters is polar opposites. Oriole, the ‘bad girl’, dons a men’s air force jacket and unflinchingly taken on traditionally ‘masculine’ chores such as butchering and draining the blood from a pig and chopping wood. Acacia, the ‘good girl’ adores wearing her grandmother’s frilly dresses and prefers to cook, clean and pick loco-weed. Both pair up respectably with their familiars, the brash badass Whizzer, and the meek, gentle Golly.  It is arguable that the persona of Oriole is far more ‘1969’ that ‘1919’, though then one questions the filmmakers’ motives at linking such a distinctly feminist character to ‘evil’ and ‘darkness’.
Thus brings up the inevitable question: how did a film with such a mish-mash of genres, subplots and contexts and abrupt shifts in tone get funded by 20th Century Fox? Suffering major financial losses in the wake of several big-budget flops such as Dr. Dolittle (1967) and Hello, Dolly! (1969), the studio decided to try their luck with low-budget independent cinema, noting the runaway successes of Easy Rider (1969) and Two Lane Blacktop (1971).  “Hoping for, at best, a sleeper and, at worst, recoupable losses, Fox placed the low budget production in the hands of start-up film director Leo Garen, who had no film industry bona fides to speak of but who had earned acclaim and no small amount of infamy Off-Broadway with controversial productions of plays by Norman Mailer and LeRoi Jones.” (Harland Smith 2015). According to screenwriter Steve Katz, the screenplay, titled Grassland, was written by himself and Garen in a cocaine-fuelled frenzy: “We typed fast and furious. I didn’t see anything getting done...there was a script cobbled together somehow. I can’t say I understand how it got done, nor can I identify my contribution.” After assembling a cast that at the time was the height of counterculture chic (Sissy Spacek auditioned but didn’t make the final cut), filming began in South Dakota in September 1971 on a Cheyenne River Sioux reservation. Fox executives were hardly impressed by reports from the crew that Garen and his actors were spending far more time smoking dope than making progress with the movie. After three months and still no signs of filming wrapping up the executives had had enough and summoned Garen and his crew back to Hollywood, where principal photography could be completed under the watchful eye of the studio.  “The studio then seized Grassland, denying Garen final cut, and shelved the film for a year. Fox would ultimately attempt two limited releases of the film, as Grassland in September 1973 (at which point the ads suggested a lighthearted, vaguely druggy experience) and three months later as Hex (with ad copy that brokered in more standard exploitation superlatives). Under either title, the film drew no audience and Fox vaulted it - ultimately dumping Hex onto video cassette in the mid-80s.” (Harland Smith 2015). Lead actress Cristina Raines confirmed in 2014: “There's been so many different versions that they edited of it.  Everybody got ahold of it and they were re-editing and re-editing it.  I have no idea what it is now.”    
Whether Hex’s surreal, dreamlike atmosphere and endearing eccentricities was carefully crafted or a happy drug-induced chopped and changed accident is open to debate. Essentially the film is a product of its time, an era when major studios threw money at young first-time directors in the hope of turning out the next Easy Rider or Five Easy Pieces. Initially seen as an unwatchable embarrassment by 20th Century Fox, Hex later resurfaced on the home video market and developed a renewed reputation as an unjustly neglected cult film. (Harland Smith 2015). Hex remains fascinating four decades on as both a wonderfully original entry in the Fantasy Western subgenre, as well as a cinematic time capsule of a bygone era.

Harland Smith, R. 2010, May 7, ‘First in Fear: Native Americans in Horror, Part 1’. Streamline. Retrieved 18 October, 2017, from
Harland Smith, R. 2015, ‘Hex’. Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 18 October, 2017, from
Katz, Steve. Time’s Wallet, Volume 1. Counterpath Press, 2010.
‘Since You’ve Gone: An Interview with Cristina Raines’. Hill Place. Retrieved 19 October, 2017, from

Introducing the Maestro of the Macabre, USA style: An overview of Mario Bava’s AIP distributed films

For most Chelle's Inferno readers, it is likely that Mario Bava needs no introduction. An
extraordinarily gifted director, screenwriter, cinematographer and special effects craftsman,
Bava pioneered the giallo genre and was also instrumental in launching the modern slasher
film. His inventive, darkly atmospheric, visually sumptuous works have influenced countless
filmmakers from Tim Burton to Joe Dante to Quentin Tarantino. North American directors
who have acknowledged Bava often first discovered the Italian master’s unique brand of
cinema thanks to American International Pictures. AIP, who quickly recognised Bava’s
talent, were the first distribution company to release his movies to English-speaking
audiences. Although Bava critics often deride the AIP versions of his works – which were
dubbed, re-edited, re-scored and mature content toned down for their younger patrons - the
AIP cuts always retained that distinct ‘Bava’ look and feel that left an undeniable impression.
AIP also deserves credit for granting Bava the opportunity to be recognised outside of Italy
and on an international scope – his films were soon being released in the UK, Western
Europe and Scandinavia, Asia and Australia, inspiring and igniting the creative fires of
cinephiles from all sides of the globe

In the wake of the remarkable success of the English dubbed release of Le fatiche di
Ercole (Hercules, 1958) and its sequel Ercole e la regina di Lidia (Hercules Unchained,
1959) – to date they are both the highest grossing features in the history of the Italian film
industry – American International Pictures founders Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H.
Nicholson headed to Rome in search of inexpensive, marketable product to distribute in the
U.S. One of the titles they screened was La maschera del demonio (1960), a gripping,
visually arresting opus which was also notably only the third horror release from Italy to date, due to Mussolini’s ban on their production – a prohibition which was not revoked until the mid-1950s. Sensing they were onto a winner, Arkoff and Nicholson purchased the U.S. rights for $100,000 – considerably more than the film’s entire budget.

La maschera del demonio begins with the execution of Asa (Barbara Steele), a 17th

century princess accused of witchcraft. A gold mask with sharp spikes is hammered into her
face. 200 years later Asa’s mask is accidently removed, resurrecting the evil witch who seeks revenge on the descendents of those who put her to death, as well as attempt to possess the body of Katia, a beautiful lookalike relative (also played by Barbara Steele). Upon acquiring La maschera del demonio, AIP got to work reconstructing the movie to make it more suitable for American audiences. Three minutes of graphic violence was truncated, including an eyeball puncturing via a sharp stick, the burning and branding of human flesh and blood gushing from the mask which is driven into Steele’s face. All dialogue was redubbed into English – even that of non-Italian speakers Barbara Steele and John Richardson – and in some cases softened, such as this line: "You, too, can find the joy and happiness of Hades!" AIP changed it to "You, too, can find the joy and happiness of hating!" Roberto Nicolosi’s subtly atmospheric music soundtrack was also replaced by a considerably more melodramatic score by Les Baxter. Finally, a catchy title had to be thought up – after several alternatives including Witchcraft, The House of Fright, The Curse, Vengeance and Demoniaque were considered, Black Sunday was the decided on choice.

Released on a double bill with Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) in
North America during February 1961, Black Sunday proved to be box office gold for AIP,
outperforming its original premiere in Italy and raking in record profits for the distributor.
Black Sunday also elevated the formerly little-known Barbara Steele to cult stardom,
and subsequent leading roles in a string of genre movies led to her becoming a beloved icon of horror cinema. Most critical reviews of Black Sunday were positive; the stunning medieval Gothic sets Bava achieved on a shoestring budget were praised as well as for the most part, the (at the time) strong content of the film  - even in its diluted state, Black Sunday was considered audacious. Elated with the enthusiastic response to Bava’s masterpiece, AIP soon got in touch with the Italian director again to negotiate the U.S. release of what is generally considered to be the first giallo feature, La ragazza che sapeve troppo (The Evil Eye, 1963).

Soon after completing Gli invasori (Erik the Conqueror, 1961), Bava suffered a nervous
breakdown. He took a six month break, during which he seriously considered retiring from
directing and only working on special effects on films from thereon. However, Bava was
convinced – albeit reluctantly - to return to the director’s chair, by Arkoff and Nicholson,
who had begun co-producing Italian features for release in the United States. Bava was still in the recovery process from his illness and didn’t feel entirely ready to return to work, only
doing so for financial reasons.  La ragazza che sapeve troppo, a mystery involving a young
tourist (Leticia Roman) witnessing a brutal murder while on vacation in Rome, and is then
targeted by the killer herself when she reports the crime to the police. At the time, Italian
horror and thriller movies were generally adult-oriented, containing more violence, sexual
and mature themes and a much darker atmosphere than their American counterparts, which
catered to a youth audience. As AIP’s target viewers were young adults, they decided to
lighten the tone of the film for the American cut by requesting Bava film some comedic
scenes which were included in that version. They also eliminated all references to marijuana
(erasing a key plot point in the process) and modified the ending. AIP also found the original
movie title (The Girl Who Know Too Much) too imitative of Alfred Hitchcock – even though
the film itself was a parody of Hitchcock’s thrillers – retitling it The Evil Eye. Les Baxter was
called in to replace Roberto Nicolosi’s too ‘European’ sounding jazz soundtrack, providing a
more standard composition (cheerful music during the humorous moments, bombastic
‘shock’ cues to signal tense scenes, etc). In either version, Bava always considered La
ragazza che sapeve troppo – a brilliant forerunner of the entire giallo genre - to be one of his worst pictures, perhaps also due to unpleasant memories of the breakdown. His next feature and collaboration with AIP, I tre volti della paura (Black Sabbath, 1963), was in contrast always one of his personal favourites of his own works.
I tre volti della paura comprises of a trio of horror stories introduced by Boris Karloff. In
‘The Telephone’, an unstable prostitute (Michele Mercier) is stalked and terrorised by an
escaped prisoner (Milo Quesada) determined to wreak vengeance on her in relation to a past event. ‘The Wurdalak’ involves a family patriarch (Boris Karloff) transformed into a vampire and inflicted by a curse which drives him to kill only his loved ones, specifically his blood and extended relatives. ‘The Drop of Water’ is the tale of a nurse (Jacqueline Pierreux) who unwisely steals a valuable ring from a recently deceased medium when preparing her corpse. The enraged spirit of the medium is determined to retrieve her ring and embarks on a campaign of fear against the nurse. 

I tre volti della paura was filmed during an eight week period in early 1963. Bava was
able to secure Karloff to the production as he was under contract with AIP. The pair got along very well – Karloff later stated that his time working on I tre volti della paura was some of the most fun he’d ever had on a film set. AIP set about making their own tamer cut for U.S. moviegoers, renaming it Black Sabbath to link it to Bava’s previous Black Sunday. AIP
deleted all sexual references in ‘The Telephone’ segment and replaced these themes with a
supernatural angle. The order of the stories was switched around and Karloff’s introductions
altered via addition material shot by Bava to lighten the intensity of the film. Scenes of
violence were also muted by darkening offending frames or optically enlarging them to crop
out said gory moments. Therefore, the colour scheme of Italian print is much brighter and
vibrant in comparison. Roberto Nicolosi’s classy soundtrack was once again replaced with a
decidedly inferior and bland Les Baxter score. AIP released Black Sabbath in the States in
May 1964 on a double bill with The Evil Eye.

Next up Bava decided to try his hand at science fiction, directing his first and only title of
that genre, Terrore nello spazio (Planet of the Vampires, 1965). Two spaceships land on the
planet Aura. Unbeknown to both crews, a disembodied alien race resides on Aura. Wanting
to escape their derelict world, the aliens seek to possess the bodies of the human visitors.
Planet of the Vampires, as Terrore nello spazio was retitled by AIP, was paired with Die,
Monster, Die! (Monster of Terror, 1965) for its U.S. screenings. Planet of the Vampires
received the least modifications out of all of the AIP distributed Bava features. Two minutes
were trimmed from the original Italian cut, predominately of actors exploring the mist
enshrouded planet and some minimal character exposition. Bava’s sole sci-fi project has
received much critical praise for its innovate storyline and striking visual design. Critics have
also frequently noted the similarities between Planet of the Vampires and Ridley Scott’s
Alien (1979), however Scott and Alien’s screenwriter Dan O’Bannon both claim to have
never seen Bava’s picture.

Le spie vengono dal semifreddo (Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, 1966), Bava’s final
feature to be distributed by AIP, was unfortunately an unmitigated disaster. Producer Fulvio
Luscome of Italian International Pictures was planning a sequel to the successful comedy
spoof Due Mafiosi contro Goldginger (The Amazing Doctor G, 1965), starring popular Italian
comedy duo Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia. Upon consulting with co-financers Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson, it was agreed upon that the original Italian version would be filmed as the planned Franchi and Ingrassia vehicle; whilst the English dub would star Vincent Price and be converted to a follow up to the Price hit Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini
Machine (1965). The U.S. cut involves a scheming mad scientist, Dr. Goldfoot (Vincent
Price) planning world domination via his creation of an army of sexy female robots that
explode when embraced. Goldfoot programs his lethal robots to seduce generals of NATO
countries. Since Bava was contracted to both AIP and Lucisano for one more movie, it was
decided this would be it. However, the project was not Bava’s cup of tea and he tried to back out of the project, especially upon learning he would not be permitted to have any input on the finalised American cut. Bava had no choice in the matter though due to being
contractually obligated. An unenthusiastic Bava proceeded with the Italian version, which
was subsequently re-written during the dubbing process, as well as dramatically re-edited, to place emphasis on Price’s Dr. Goldfoot character. The ever dependable Les Baxter was hired for re-scoring duties, replacing Lallo Gori’s jazz soundtrack. Both interpretations are lame, rambling satires of Dr. No (1962) and Goldfinger (1964), with neither version drawing
crowds in upon their theatrical releases in late 1965. Generally viewed as Bava’s worst film,
even its star Vincent Price considered Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs "...the most dreadful
movie I've ever been in. Just about everything that could go wrong, did.”

Despite the unfortunate experience of Le spie vengono dal semifreddo, Mario Bava was
looked upon with great esteem by AIP, who actually asked Bava to continue on with the
company - on the condition that he relocate to the USA. However he preferred to stay in
Italy, despite being offered a sizable paycheck. Producer and distributor Lawrence Woolner
also invited Bava to work exclusively for Allied Artists after his AIP contract expired – again
he did not want to leave his homeland. Bava turned down such further offers, including
$100,000 from Dino De Laurentiis to complete the special effects for the 1976 remake of
King Kong. Although Bava would have undoubtedly received both much more prominence
and prosperity had he decided to move to the U.S., the man himself was notoriously private,
rarely granting interviews and only leaving Rome when necessary. Preferring to work with
smaller budgets and crews, it is likely that the much larger, mega-budgeted sets of Hollywood would have been overwhelming and daunting for the introverted, reclusive Bava. Keeping in mind the director’s tendency to both underplay and undermine his own work when questioned about it in interviews and reluctance to self-promote, AIP deserve due recognition and merit for being the first distribution company outside of Italy to recognise Bava’s phenomenal talent, broadening his audience to North America, then subsequently the world.